How does someone get from forgoing education and crossing the country to care for his father, to becoming the founder and CEO of a successful tech start-up? Ask Ethan Do.
Do’s company, Over Air Proximity Technologies ltd., is a year-old, growing operation that has made its name as the creative and inventive face of near field communication.
NFC is a technology that allows users to transfer data between two devices. An NFC tag, sticker or wristband contains a small microchip that is able to send data to a smartphone simply by bringing the phone into close proximity.
The most well-known and publicized use for NFC has been mobile payment systems—purchasing goods by simply waving your phone over VISA or Debit payment pad, for example.
Ethan Do grew up in Montreal and always had a fondness for technology and computers. He graduated high school at 18, with a 95 per cent average — affording him the opportunity to attend almost any Canadian university.
At the same time, his father had a stroke and was half-paralysed as a result. Do decided to move to Vancouver and take care of his father.
With needs to meet and bills to be paid, Do got a job at a FedEx Kinkos store in Vancouver. He worked hard and was able to climb the ladder of his branch, over the course of five years.
“I went from being a photocopy boy on the night shift, doing hand staples for ten hours, to being the senior manager of their most profitable store in Canada” he said.
Do soon became wary of the retail life and was looking for a change. After calling up a FedEx client, eBay Canada, Do started working there, starting at the bottom, again, as a customer service e-mail response agent.
When he was unable to keep up with the e-mail response quota, at work, he designed a filter that would sort customer emails and generate automatic responses.
“It was accurate about 90% of the time…that caught the attention of eBay, and I got my first promotion” said Do.
Do found himself climbing the ladder again. Even without a degree, he was offered a position working in business intelligence—crunching number, analyzing customer activity and working in fraud prevention.
Do’s life was shaken up, though, during 2008 and 2009. In a six month period, his half-brother, and then his father, both passed away. Meanwhile, eBay announced that they would be shutting down their Vancouver centre and outsourcing. Do was going to be laid-off.
Of that time in his life, Do said “I didn’t know exactly what to do, but my father always encouraged us to go back [to school].”
“I decided to drive across Canada…and reflect,” he said.
Knowing that Ontario had the most universities of any province, he determined that he would stand a better chance applying there. After gaining more high school credits through an adult secondary school, he eventually enrolled at McMaster as a mature student.
Do was still hurting from his eBay job being outsourced, and decided to study Kinesiology.
Do said that his rational was “I’ll be a doctor, they can’t outsource me.”
He loved studying the body and its inner workings, but couldn’t give up his love of technology. Knowing this, he transferred into McMaster’s business informatics program, where he could learn coding and business principles together.
“I’ve learned a lot, and I am very thankful for that, it really opened a lot of doors” he said.
A game-changing moment came in the fall of 2012. After buying a new smartphone, Do was exploring the settings and features of the device. When he saw something about near field communication, he was intrigued and researched the technology.
His curiosity encouraged him to order a few NFC tags and a tag writer. He wanted to try them out.
Then, an epiphany: “I programmed my first one, I took my phone, touched the tag, and my LinkedIn profile came up.”
He continued, “I felt the potential of all of this and it was just mind-blowing.”
He knew then that he wanted to work with NFC. He didn’t look at the market, or think about competition. Do began teaching himself to code NFC tags and educated himself of all things NFC.
After advice from professors, Do went to the Innovation Factory and McMaster Innovation Park, an incubation centre to help students develop their businesses.
He wanted to take pitch training at Innovation Park, but upon arriving on the wrong date, found himself at a competition, rather than a training seminar.
He showed the audience what he had been working on. He demonstrated an NFC enabled medical alert wristband, inspired by his father.
“The night that my father passed away, he lost consciousness, so the people who found him didn’t know who to contact,” he said. The people who found him were on the phone with 911 operators for over 20 minutes.
“By the time they hung up with 911, they could find me, and I was only two blocks away. When I got there, it was too late.”
The product he demonstrated could inform anyone with a smartphone. The NFC tag sends the phone important medical information—allergies, medication. It then opens a first-aid app, to inform the user about what how to help. It then sends a text message, automatically, to the programmed emergency contact. It can do all of this, while someone is on a call with 911.
He won the competition. Realizing the potential for competition funding, and noticing that his credit card funding strategy would not work forever, Do asked for help from classmates, who volunteered, and entered into more competitions.
He was a finalist at Hamilton’s Lions Liar, a winner and Vitacore Dragon’s Den, second place at the Enactus Student Entrepreneur National Competition and the top winner at Dx3.
Since then, Over Air has added more than 20 volunteers to the company and several paid co-op students. This has helped them develop all kinds of ways to use NFC and offer it to clients.
Ethan Do’s future is somewhat uncertain. He knows that he will finish his degree in the spring of 2014 and he knows that he will take Over Air as far as it can go, and work to become a Canadian leader.
“People are captivated by our technology… I really believe we are on the verge of an NFC explosion,” he said.
“There is an opportunity to show the world that Canada can still be innovative, and that it started right in Hamilton, right here at McMaster.”